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Monday, October 22, 2012
Team preview: UCSB Gauchos

Blue Ribbon Yearbook

For the most comprehensive previews available on all 335 Division I teams, order the "Bible" of college basketball, the 2012-13 Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, at www.blueribbonyearbookonline.com or call 1-877-807-4857.

COACH AND PROGRAM

Bob Williams used to know where he stood.

For the last three seasons, that was at or near the top of the Big West. His UC Santa Barbara Gauchos, thanks to a solid core of players led by all-conference stars Orlando Johnson and James Nunnally, were a no-brainer pick to win or contend for the league title, as evidenced by their two NCAA tournament trips in that span.

Now with that core of Johnson, Nunnally, Jaime Serna and Greg Somogyi gone, Williams thinks he has the talent on hand to replace that group and move on seamlessly to another season as a Big West contender.

Thinks is the key word here. The thing is, Williams doesn't really know what he has, because the majority of his team is untested or unproven.

"That's why I say our expectation is we're going to be very competitive," the coach said, "but boy, we've got a long way to go to really find out, because we're relying on an awful lot of really young players to not only play, but produce. And the proven players we have coming back have never had to carry much of a load.

"That's a dangerous recipe. But it's also one when you have five seniors graduate, four of which are scholarship guys, and you rode those seniors hard, you don't really have an alternative."

So for this season, at least, Williams is letting his chips ride for the most part on a sophomore who last season showed signs of growing into a star and a couple of redshirt freshmen in whom he sees many of the characteristics of the decorated but now departed Johnson and Nunnally.

The sophomore is massive 6-7 center Alan Williams (6.9 ppg, 6.5 rpg. 1.3 bpg), whose listed weight of 240 pounds drew a chuckle from his coach.

"He's 275 on a good day, and we're giving him the benefit of the doubt on that," Bob Williams said. "He never saw 240 -- didn't even visit it. He's a big man. He's made for the post. He has phenomenal hands, long arms and an incredible instinct for rebounding the ball."

Alan Williams used those attributes to seize a significant role for himself as last season progressed. He wound up starting 19 of the Gauchos' last 20 games and averaged a near double-double -- 9.8 points and 8.1 rebounds, along with 2.0 blocked shots -- in conference play.

The next step is to raise that production and consistency enough to become a go-to guy in every sense of the word, and the Gauchos are counting on it.

"We think Al Williams is going to step up and be a guy we can rely on to give us a real strength on the inside," Bob Williams said. "He needs to carry the load for us in terms of an inside presence, provide consistent defense, be a better screener and for God's sakes he has to stay out of foul trouble."

The big man's primary offensive help will come from the redshirts, 6-5 John Green and 6-8 Taran Brown, who will give the Gauchos the skill, athleticism and versatility previously provided by departed stars Johnson and Nunnally.

At least, that's the plan.

"Well, now, when you're replacing the No. 1 and No. 3 all-time leading scorers in your program with two redshirt freshmen, they'd better be good," Bob Williams said. "We think they are."

So good that Williams calls Brown "the best athlete I've ever had in my time at UCSB & as good an athlete as I've been around since I was at Pepperdine with [15-year NBA player] Doug Christie."

Brown's versatility is such that Williams will play him at off guard and power forward, allowing the Gauchos to give opponents a variety of looks.

Though nominally a freshman, the 6-5 Green brings maturity -- he attended prep school in Phoenix after high school and redshirted last season after breaking his foot in the opener. Williams expects the 20-year-old to step in seamlessly at small forward with the same scorer's mentality displayed by Johnson, a three-time all-conference pick.

"Orlando Johnson just had a gift for scoring," Williams said. "John Green has that same type of gift. He's got great instincts to score. He's versatile -- he can score inside and out. He puts hours and hours into his game, and he's incorporated everything from being a center in high school to playing power forward in AAU ball to being a perimeter guy in prep school as a perimeter guy.

"He's a pretty complete scorer for a young guy. He's not your typical freshman."

Backup help for the young wings will come in part from one of Santa Barbara's most experienced players. Junior Kyle Boswell -- the Gauchos have only one senior -- averaged almost 22 minutes per game, the most of any returning player, and posted a respectable 7.5 points and 1.7 assists per game in 2011-12.

But the 6-2 guard's most eye-catching number was his .435 3-point percentage, third best in the league. Which makes his task this season obvious -- shoot more.

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"We need him to be a much bigger piece to the puzzle offensively," Williams said. "In his first two years I've had to really get on him to shoot the ball more -- stop trying to create for others and shoot the ball. There aren't too many times when you have to yell at a kid to shoot the ball.

"He's not a good shooter, he's a great shooter with really deep range. So we need him to take advantage of that and shoot the ball more and be an offensive weapon."

The point was an issue last season. Nate Garth (2.8 ppg, 2.5 apg), a 6-2 senior, was supposed to seize the position after transferring from New Mexico, but he struggled with his role as a pass-first guard on a team loaded with scorers and wound up losing the job to 5-9 water bug T.J. Taylor (3.1 ppg, 1.8 apg), a sophomore.

"It was a real adjustment for him to play with what our expectations are out of a point guard," Williams said of Garth. "He struggled with those expectations. Now he's had a year to absorb it -- maybe accept it is a better word -- and now let's see if he can put it to use."

But Garth won't be handed he starting job. Instead, he faces a challenge for playing time from Taylor and explosive 6-0 freshman Dalante Dunklin, who started for the Dream Vision AAU team that included touted UCLA recruit Shabazz Muhammad. Though Dunklin lacks experience, he brings a defensive mindset and the athleticism to get to the basket. Williams won't be afraid to start any of the three candidates.

Another freshman, 6-4 Mike Bryson, will make a pitch for significant minutes in the backcourt. Williams said Bryson's shooting and defensive ability make him "an impact guy" right away. Aamahd Walker, a 6-2 freshman who Williams called "a natural scorer" in the mold of Green, is likely to redshirt.

Up front, the Gauchos have no shortage of bodies to pair with Williams, but only one with much experience. The top returnee and likely starter at power forward is 6-7 junior Keegan Hornbuckle (3.6 ppg, 1.8 rpg), who transferred from Colorado last season with high expectations, but he battled knee and back injuries and illness and was never at full strength. Healthy again, he'll be counted on for a major contribution as a scorer and rebounder.

The rest of the inside group consists of hopefuls. At center, 6-8 freshman Mitch Brewe is already a solid physical presence and has a soft shooting touch, while skilled but slight 6-10 freshman Sam Beeler is ex-pected to redshirt to add bulk and strength.

Returning 6-7 sophomore Lewis Thomas (1.1 ppg, 1.3 rpg), a high-upside player who started for Australia's U19 national team, will back up both post spots.

BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS

BACKCOURT: B-
BENCH/DEPTH: C+
FRONTCOURT: C+
INTANGIBLES: B

Unlike rival Long Beach State, UC Santa Barbara has chosen to rebuild with freshmen rather than transfers after losing the core of a championship team, hoping to set the program up for the long haul as well as the short run.

While Williams loves the talent coming in -- especially Brown and Green -- and believes the Gauchos have the horses to contend for the Big West championship, he worries about having to rely so heavily on inexperienced kids.

"I would just as soon have talented young players as a bunch of transfers or JC kids," Williams said. "But it's inevitable that there will be a drop-off of some level. I actually think we're really prepared to be competitive, but the bottom line is you just don't know what you have until you get in competition.

"That's just the reality of rebuilding."

For the most comprehensive previews available on all 335 Division I teams, order the "Bible" of college basketball, the 2012-13 Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, at www.blueribbonyearbookonline.com or call 1-877-807-4857.